As a member of the elite Section 9 defense squad, her day job frequently involves being shot at, but more worrisome to Major (Scarlett Johansson) than any bullet is her memory in Ghost in the Shell. A live-action adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s seminal manga, the new film from director Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) has a lot on its mind, and while it doesn’t quite live up to its ambitious story, it does pack one hell of a punch.
In the not-too-distant future, not only can you get a facelift, you can also buy cybernetic enhancements that meld your skin with computer technology, keeping you plugged into the online world at all times. But convenient cybernetic enhancements have opened the door to a new form of cyber-terrorism led by a mysterious entity known as Kuze (Michael Pitt), and it’s up to the cyborg Major and the rest of the Section 9 team to track him down quickly and efficiently, making Major’s sudden memory glitches more than just a minor inconvenience.
The only surviving physical part of her old life, Major’s brain lives on in a synthetic body that looks human, but can endure far more damage than any vessel of fragile flesh and bone. A beloved character from both the Ghost in the Shell manga (aka Mobile Armored Riot Police) and its 1995 anime adaptation, Major is a highly intriguing role to play, and for the most part, Johansson strikes that difficult balance between robotic rigidity and her awakening human side. Although it would have been nice to see her show a little more range with the character as the plot progresses, she does bring out her inner cyborg to great effect here, both in the quieter moments and in the brutal action scenes.
Since they are the city’s answer to deadly situations, violence follows Section 9 wherever they go, packing the film’s runtime (around 1 hour and 45 minutes) with enough battles to sate even the most voracious of action-hungry appetites. Even at their grittiest moments, the fight scenes play out like lethally rhythmic dances. Sanders films the action coherently, avoiding quick-cut edits and the shaky camera technique used all too often by other films to “intensify” combat. Instead, Sanders treats every action sequence like something to be savored, using slow motion and a steady eye to bring out the beauty in even the most vicious movements. While these scenes never achieve “Matrix-level” shock and awe, they are expertly executed, and I really appreciate how every punch and pull of the trigger is treated with the respect such grave actions deserve.
Unfortunately, not all of the characters are given the full attention that they warrant. Section 9 is an eclectic team, and the screenplay hints at unique backstories for all of its members, but other than Major and the gruff-but-lovable Batou (Pilou Asbæk), we never get to really know any of them beyond their time on the job. (Asbæk is outstanding as Batou, though, instilling the story with a much-needed sense of humor and warming the film’s synthetic heart with his humanity.)
Ghost in the Shell also has a villain problem. While Kuze is a formidable foe with an intriguing backstory to boot, another key antagonist is reduced to a one-dimensional stereotype that seems less human than the story’s synthetics. A deeper dive would have been welcome here, but at least Pitt’s performance as Kuze helps pick up the slack where the screenplay settles for evil without much explanation.
Where the story isn’t lacking is in its visuals. Bathed in neon light below gray skies, the city in Ghost in the Shell is truly a sight to behold. Towering hologram advertisements mingle with skyscrapers, dominating the urban landscape with commercialism, constantly reminding citizens to enhance their bodies with technological alterations. The CG structures are especially dazzling as a distant skyline or when viewed from above in bird’s-eye shots.
The film puts its 3D effects to good use without getting gimmicky. Rather than throw a constant barrage of bullets at viewers, the 3D element instead makes the city pop off the screen in subtle-yet-effective fashion, as Sanders and cinematographer Jess Hall find numerous ways to show off both the beauty and the depravity of the city. Watching Ghost in the Shell in 3D isn’t essential, but it’s worth a few extra dollars at the ticket booth.
As awesome as the visual effects are, what I admire most about the look of Ghost in the Shell is its practical effects, from some of the futuristic vehicles to Batou’s X-ray eyes. The CG elements enhance rather than take over the film’s practical approaches, making this city and its violence feel real, even when a geisha robot is downloading data from someone’s neck while scurrying up the wall like a spider.
While Ghost in the Shell isn’t as thought provoking as other synthetic projects in recent years (such as Ex Machina), it’s an often eye-popping display of action that’s more endearing than moviegoers might expect. Mileage may vary for diehard fans of the 1995 anime of the same name, but if you’re looking for a stylish sci-fi thriller to go with your popcorn on a Friday night, you should have a good time plugging into the world of Ghost in the Shell.
Movie Score: 3.5/5